Millennium Park celebrates 10 years

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City planners say it was a huge risk. Was Millennium worth the pricetag? (WLS)

Before the Bean, Chicago's Millennium Park was 24-acres of industrial wasteland.

The hugely popular urban park officially opened 10 years ago on Wednesday. Since then, Millennium Park has been one of Chicago's most popular tourist destinations, falling just behind Navy Pier.

The idea to turn the site owned by Illinois Central Railroad into a park was proposed by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1997. It had been left out of Daniel Burnham's "Plan for Chicago" because he thought it untouchable, and therefore developed Grant Park around it.

City planners say it was a huge risk. And, 10 years later, it's still not without critics.

The site, bordered by Lake Michigan and Michigan Avenue, remained railroad tracks and parking spots until work began on the park. Millennium Park was four years behind schedule and cost $500 million when it opened on July 16, 2004.

"I think if it was nothing before, it was worth it. It's definitely turned into something iconic to the city of Chicago," Collin Morris said.

Daley supporters call Millennium Park his biggest achievement. What began as a modest $150 million proposal to be paid for by parking garage revenue and private donations ballooned to a cost of $500 million due to add-ons now considered the main attractions: the Bean, Crown Fountain and the Pritzker Pavilion.

"It ended up being a beautiful asset for the city. But everyone had to pay more: the taxpayers had to pay more; the philanthropic community in Chicago stepped up to the plate in an enormous way and made it a reality," Laurence Msall, The Civic Federation, said. Despite the beauty of the park, Msall said Millennium Park is a great example of bad planning and rigorous financial oversight.

Edward Uhlir was the projects master planner. He is now executive director of The Millennium Park Foundation. He said the economic benefits today far outweigh the financial controversy of the past.

"The residual impact from the visitors, foreign travelers coming to Chicago is about $1.2 billion a year," Uhlir said.

Reflections, water and music

Cloud Gate, a sculpture by British artist Anish Kapoor that reflects the city's skyline, is commonly referred to as the Bean by Chicagoans. Much like Willis Tower, the sculpture has become one of the most recognized Chicago landmarks.

Not quite ready at the official opening, crews continued to sand and polish the seams of the 110-ton elliptical steel sculpture until 2005.

Crown Fountain, a sculpture designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, is another popular public art piece in Millennium Park- especially in the summer. The 50-foot glass block towers are lit up with faces of Chicagoans- some of whom appear to be spitting water out of their mouths. Children and adults cool off in the reflecting pool and flowing water.

In celebration of the 10th anniversary, four additional pieces of work from Plensa - huge busts of girls' heads - are on display. The exhibit is called "1004 Portraits."

Much of the 24-acre of green space was left that way for people to enjoy, including a large lawn outside the Jay Pritzker Pavilion band shell designed by architect Frank Gehry, Chase Promenade, and the 5-acre Lurie Garden.

"It's such an open space for us to all hang out," Ivory White said.

Gehry also designed the BP Bridge, currently closed while construction continues on the Maggie Daley Park across the street.

Built in 2009, another bridge, the Nichols Bridgeway, is the newest addition to Millennium Park. The 625-foot pedestrian bridge connects the park to The Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing.

Harris Theater hosts art and cultural events from dance to music and educational programs from September to May.

Download the 2014 Millennium Park Summer Celebration brochure.
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